Vachel Lindsay and
Springfield, Illinois, U.S.A.
Understanding Harris understanding Lindsay
October 5, 1979
Biographers should note that this was the first of the half-dozen pieces I did about Springfield's self-appointed poet laureate Vachel Lindsay, and also the first about Mark Harris's interesting book about Lindsay. My views did not change much about either over the years, although those years have left me with a deeper sympathy with the dilemmas faced by both men.
Harris's book was rescued from obscurity by the University of Illinois Press in 1993, which publication occasioned a review-essay in the Reader that borrowed heavily from this account. Waste not, want not.
Springfield is not a city in which books matter much. This is true even though the city has had a hand in producing two poets of national rank as well as a noted biographer and historian whose skills were as much literary as historiographical; even Lincoln was a prose writer of the first rank. Like any self-infatuated belle, who brightens when conversation turns to her, Springfield’s indifference to the printed page is enlivened when the page is about Springfield. But generally Springfield has valued its literary citizens more as public assets—civic landmarks to be bragged about to visitors, like a new sewer system—than as artists.
Most of the good books written about Springfield have really been about Abraham Lincoln. The best known is called Here I Have Lived; written in 1935 by Paul M. Angle. then the secretary of the state historical society. Here is subtitled, “A History of Lincoln’s Springfield” and is remarkable for its lean and lucid prose. It is also remarkable for the fact that, almost uniquely among Lincoln authors, the author managed to delay the hero’s appearance until Page 34 and, more remarkably, to treat him for 258 pages thereafter as just another citizen—albeit a conspicuous one—of the town.
In his prologue, Angle pointed out, “That there are certain relationships between a man’s environment and what he ultimately becomes is obvious.” It was that relationship that led Angle to write a biography of Lincoln by writing the biography of the town he lived in. It was an identical insight that led another young writer some dozen years later to attempt much the same kind of book about another of Springfie1d’s famous sons, the poet Vachel Lindsay.
The writer was Mark Harris. In the years since, Harris has earned for himself a solid reputation as a novelist with such works as Bang the Drum Slowly. In 1946, he first began to assemble notes on the life of the man who, he later wrote, he had until then known only “as the author of a few famous poems we read in high school.” Lindsay had been dead fifteen years by then. (“In high school we only read dead authors.”) But in Springfield, as Harris notes, “Vachel Lindsay lived vividly in the minds and hearts of everyone who had known him.”
Harris lived in Springfield for a time while he worked as a reporter out of St. Louis for the International News Service, and in the summer of 1949 felt ready to write a book which, he would later say, would tell what the life of a poet is like. He finished it ten months later. A quarter-century later, in the autobiographical Best Father Ever Invented, Harris explained the method behind this madness. He’d decided not to essay another biography. That had already been done fourteen years earlier, by Lindsay’s friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters, in a portrait that (as previewed two years earlier in an American Meaning essay) excoriated “Philistine Springfield” which had “seemed to open its arms, folded them and stared at Lindsay and turned from him.” This was the town that gave him—dead of a suicide at fifty-two—a funeral that was “as distinguished as sorrow could make it, and the desire to erase past neglect could contrive.”
Instead, Harris would write Lindsay’s life as a novel. The poet would be the Hero, and “other ‘real’ characters would appear under their own names while between - one ‘real’ moment and the next I would provide fictional connections.” He titled the book City of Discontent, which he took from the opening lines of Lindsay’s poem, “Springfield Magical.” It was in his subtitle that he revealed his editorial purpose, and also previewed the book’s propulsive style: “An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay. being also the story of Springfield. Illinois. USA. and the love of the poet for that city, that state and that nation.”
City was published by Bobbs-Merrill Company on March 18, 1952. Harris remembered it “falling silently upon the public, like snow upon the forest.” It is true that the book caused no great stir nationally, but it did elicit generally complimentary reviews—enough, one would think, to satisfy even the ravenous ego of a young writer. The Christian Science Monitor reviewed it, as did the Nation and The Saturday Review, and dailies in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Reviewers found it “an amazingly good piece of interpretive writing.” “A lively, swift-moving sympathetic story of a man who deserves to be remembered” (which one, Harris or Lindsay?), a book that “conveys and almost startling immediacy the complex individuality and the conjectured experience of Vachel Lindsay.”
Similarly kind things were said about Paul Angle’s book when it came out. But forty-four years after its debut Angle’s book still sells well, in Springfield and elsewhere, so much that its publishers brought out a new edition in 1971. Harris’ book. on the other hand, has been out of print for years. Even the town’s public library seldom gets asked for it anymore: since 1973 a typical copy is checked out only between three and four times a year.
But when City came out, Lincoln Library had had to buy a dozen copies to satisfy curious patrons. Unlike Angle who wrote about dead people. Harris’ book was largely about people who were still living and who could bite back. Though Springfield thought well enough of Harris’ Lindsay, it was Harris’ portrait of them they didn’t like. They didn’t like being made to look like a nest of slavering Babbits, complacent and corrupt provincials who knew neither themselves nor art and who had squandered the town’s richest legacy—the example of Lincoln. Lindsay was very much a woman’s poet (for reasons that had nothing to do with sex) and some of them bridled that Harris had come to the same conclusion about them that Lindsay himself had come to by the late ‘20s when he wrote Masters from Spokane about ‘‘the fat, rich, illiterate. climacteric women of Springfield . . . not one of (whom) willingly opened a book in her life.”
The book was eagerly, perhaps fearfully read. As the illinois State Journal noted unnecessarily, “The book will be doubly interesting to Springfield residents both because it is written about a man who was part of Springfield throughout his lifetime and because there are many allusions to Springfield residents living and dead whose lives are intertwined with that of the poet.”
The Journal was not wrong. The town—important parts of it anyway—was still sore on the subject of Lindsay, twenty years after it had buried him: when Harris poked around the wound, it jerked away defensively with little yelps of pain. The book hit Springfield bookstores a few weeks after it was published. The Illinois State Register wrote, “We have not yet read it, but the opinions of those who have seem considerably divided”—divided, the Register might have said, between those who found the work inaccurate but worthwhile and those who found it inaccurate and worthless.
Lindsay partisans such as his sister, Olive Lindsay Wakefield (who lived in the family house on Fifth Street) and Elizabeth Graham (a family friend who, as a teacher at Springfield High School and later as caretaker of the Lindsay house would become the local custodian of the Lindsay legacy) objected bitterly to the book, chiefly on the grounds of the view it offered of the poet. In fact, according to Harris, Olive Wakefield had tried to talk him out of doing the book and, failing in that, tried by letter to dissuade his publisher from publishing it.
The local papers apparently forewent the opportunity to review the book in their pages, possibly—though there is no way to prove it—out of that same regard for the city’s reputation that led them to keep such helpfully buttoned lips about the gambling scandals which had plagued the city just a few years before. It remained for Dr. Richard Paul Graebel of the First Presbyterian Church to, as he put it, “lay his head gently but firmly on the chopping block” and review City at a public forum he would hold at his church. (Graebel, who sometimes wore a cape to go with his three names, had a touch of the poet in him. Old Springfield—and the First Pres was Old Springfield to its Lincoln pew—was a little more tolerant of eccentricity in pastors than in poets.) “Lindsay experts,” Graebel wrote in his church newsletter, “will be expected to be there and take issue with the reviewer, the author, the poet, the publishers, the newspapers, the weather or anything else that does not please them!”
Not content with public complaint, some Lindsay experts sought to register their objections more permanently. One of these was Clarissa Jorgensen. who penned a dissent that has been filed away at Lincoln Library in which she confessed she was “not enough of a literary craftsman to know whether such distortion is necessary for dramatic effect.” Another was Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer. Blankmeyer was an amateur historian and club woman and the wife of a doctor whose history, The Sangamon Country has been confusing local young people about Sangamon County since its publication in 1935. (Those who complain that Fate has no sense of humor should note that Angle’s book and Blankmeyer’s book came out in the same year.)
Blankmever typed out a memo, which she delivered to head librarian Grace Gilman at Lincoln Library. It was not intended for publication, but was “intended to be helpful . . . in the preparation of any review.” Like many Springfieldians. Blankmeyer read the book like a lawyer reading an Opponent’s brief. Her corrective memo is devoted to small and mostly irrelevant errors of fact—a misnamed magazine, a misspelled name, a misallocation of a black mustache to a blond politician.
The only significant failure cited by the local critic was Harris’ sketch of Willis J. Spaulding. Spaulding was a friend of Lindsay, a Democratic politician, reformer, eight-term commissioner of public property, the builder of Lake Springfield. Harris had Spaulding wrong mostly in details, such as swearing—Spaulding was upright as a Mormon—even if it was true that his pride in his sinlessness was itself a sin. (As Blankmever notes. “His command of English was so good that he has no need of cuss words.) The dealing in political patronage and the shrinking from public association of friends of more adventuresome opinions than Spaulding himself held Harris got right.
Spaulding’s wealth was in his reputation. and he watched over it with a miserly eye. Spaulding drafted a commentary on the book which was published. on April 20, 1952, in the Sunday State Journal-Register. Spaulding’s critique featured the usual picking of nits. For example. Harris described a parade traveling down Tenth Street; Spaulding reminded his readers with more pleasure than the discovery deserved that Tenth Street “of course is occupied by the Wabash railroad tracks.”
Spaulding’s more substantial criticisms had to do with Harris’s view of Lindsay’s teacher and later friend. Susan Wilcox. as a “rather fearful and suppressed schoolteacher,” which most who knew her would agree was at least half wrong. Spaulding also denied shunning his and Lindsay’s socialist friend, Duncan McDonald, and complained about being made to swear in print. “Naturally.” he concluded. “I resent being caricatured in this manner.”
One suspects Harris was not trying to caricature Spaulding, only that he failed to make sufficient allowance for the degree to which Spaulding was an exception to most rules about small town politicos; it may be said that the only man who ever caricatured Willis J. Spaulding was Willis J. Spaulding. As for Spaulding’s worry that the typical reader “has no way of distinguishing reality from fancy,” well, it was the point of Harris’ book that in Lindsay’s life there was often little difference, and that Springfield itself often mistook one for the other.
Did Harris, in his youth and his enthusiasm, fail to sense the importance of presenting the essential truth, as Spaulding charged, or did Spaulding and the rest of Springfield fail to distinguish the essential truth from the literal truth about their bedeviling Lindsay? That his portrait was naive, Harris himself would admit. “I went about interviewing everyone who had been associated with him,” he recalled in Best Father Ever Invented. “These interviews were brief and superficial, as if I were preparing an article for the Port Chester Daily Item. I thought that people told what they knew. I was without suspicions of opportunism or complexities, of complicated currents or connections of love, hate, guilt. I thought all minds were as simple as I thought mine was, that for every act there was a reason, one act, one reason, and the reason, moreover, was the first that came to mind, for I was in a hurry.”
Olive Wakefield had been right, in a way, to say that Harris was too “unformed” to tackle her brother’s life. (And nearly undone; pneumonia brought on by overwork nearly killed Harris in Springfield in 1949.) As Harris quotes Keats. “We read fine things, but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author.”
Indeed. Of the people who deceived Harris (most without meaning to), the busiest deceiver was Harris himself. “It was my life, not his, that I was writing.” Harris wrote later. “When I saw the trick I had managed to play upon myself, I marveled at my gift of prophecy.”
Harris again, remembering his book’s borning “In City of Discontent I am disguised as a midwestern Protestant poet. I was born November 10, 1879, in Springfield. Illinois. Papa wants me to be doctor, but I have no interest in scientific subjects . . . I go to Chicago and New York . . . I return to Springfield, mingling there with the radical elements—Socialists, labor organizers, and Single Taxers. I want to change the world, beginning with Springfield. I am oppressed by the paradox of Springfield. which exploits and celebrates the memory of Abraham Lincoln while, in fact, despising his principles . . . I am peculiar, odd. I take long overland walking trips . . . I am thirty-three years old when I compose the poem which will alter my life. . . ”
What is amazing is that this charade worked so well, at least until the end. “How could I possibly account for the suicide of a man who had achieved everything I wanted?” Harris asked in 1976. In the few pages I assign to his death my rhetoric becomes shrill in proportion to my bewilderment. I plunge into stream-of-consciousness as a means of hinting at several causes while assuming responsibility for none: homelessness, domestic difficulty, weariness, ill health, artistic impotence, and unpaid bills. Then at last I kill him by magic, with plentiful reference to Hamlet, Socrates, Sampson, and Milton’s Abdiel, in the hope that so much weight of precedent will provide momentum. I fake it.”
Given its acknowledged failures, then, is City of I)iscontent still worth reading? Harris’s own judgment on the work is harsh, almost bitter, as if the book were a promise he’d made to himself and broken: in 1963 he wrote about the volume, “(it) occupies a sentimental place in the house without in the least contributing to the family's style, embarrassing us all with a shrill innocence very like the muttering of senility.”
Others are more generous. In I970, British scholar Ann Massa called the book “the most satisfactory work on Lindsay,” even as she allows that “only a specialized knowledge of Lindsay allows one to distinguish between fact and fiction.” (She dismisses Masters’ book as bigoted and finds Eleanor Ruggles The West-going Heart— the third major Lindsay biography. published in 1959—more reliable but “part of the sentimental pattern of apology for Lindsay’s ventures outside poetry.”)
More telling are the words of the book’s Springfield- readers. who even while carping about his missteps paid Harris a better compliment than they knew. Jorgensen wrote. ‘Whatever its faults. the book is a fine presentation of a man’s character and a convincing story of his love for a city.” Blankmever allowed that Harris - “handled a very complex central character with considerable understanding and sensitivity,” concluding, “For some of the poet’s friends who resented or were hurt by the rusty-knife surgery of Edgar Lee Masters. this presentation will be balm in the wound.” Even Spaulding admitted publicly that the book illuminated the awful contradictions in being a Springfield poet.
Dennis Camp is an associate professor of Literature and Lindsay scholar at Springfield’s Sangamon State University. He is informed and, because of his position as an alien academic, relatively immune to the viruses that sometimes infect the town's Lindsay partisans. Camp read City very earlv in his Lindsay studies. which began in the early 1970s. “From my perspective it is one of the best things ever written about Lindsay, both in terms of style and in the way Harris got the spirit of Lindsay the man,” Camp says now. “But the most important thing to remember about Harris’s book is that it’s a novel. It’s totally unreliable as a source of detailed information about Lindsay both as a poet and as a person. I have some empathy with the local people who were unhappv with the book, at least in the sense that I think that if Harris were going to write a fictional story he shouldn’t have used real names.
Harris, indeed, complicated life for more. than just the scholars who might rely on his book as source material. Camp recalls that some people in Springfield who were interviewed by Harris and later Ruggles and who were dismayed at the printed result refused to speak with him, Camp, having sworn off writers of Lindsay the way some people swear off gin after a binge.
To appreciate Harris’s Lindsay fully, Camp thinks the reader has to bring to it a detailed knowledge of the poet’s life—a condition which renders the reading of biographies redundant—and the number of casual students of Lindsay in Springfield who have that knowledge, Camp believes, is pretty small. “To the large majority of people in -. Springfield.” he concludes. “Vachel Lindsay is a bridge to the beach.”
It is true, as Harris laments, that his book did pot -produce social miracles, as once he hoped, only a thin sheaf of querulous demurrers that were secreted away in -Springfield’s desk drawers and which, a generation later, have been all but forgotten. But if one cannot claim to know about Lindsav after reading only City of Discontent, neither can one claim to know about Lindsay without reading.it. As Clarissa Jorgensen put it a long time ago. “It is a book which needed to be written to keep his memory fresh in our minds.” ●